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Advice for teaching in a virtual classroom

  • Dawn Milne
  • |
  • Apr 2, 2020
Advice for teaching in a virtual classroom

Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

The coronavirus pandemic has closed schools and forced a sudden shift to online teaching without all of the kinks worked out. Ivey faculty switched to an online model in March and have discovered some useful tips. Read their advice below.

Kanina Blanchard’s tip – Professionalism matters

Kanina Blanchard is a lecturer in Management Communications and General Management.

Online education requires professional best practices. Blanchard encourages you to keep your spoken words, written words on chat, and the demeanor you exhibit professional. But, in this new environment, things won’t always run smoothly so she warns you also have to be prepared for some gaffes.

“Show humility and vulnerability when trying new things. This will help your students to be OK with not getting it right. If you are OK with the occasional gaffe you make, it gives students the permission to learn from some initial failures as well,” she said.

Also keep in mind where students are located. If they are in different time zones, don’t expect them to accommodate odd hours. Make yourself available to them at mutually convenient times.

Most of all, bring the passion you have for teaching in the classroom to the virtual world.

“Your energy and enthusiasm will be contagious,” she said.  

Martha Maznevski’s tip – Connect to context

Martha Maznevski, PhD ’94, is a professor of Organizational Behaviour and Faculty Director for Executive Education at Ivey.

Virtual is a good format for conveying information, but it’s not as ideal as face-to-face for giving contextual cues. Maznevski recommends you show some context of where you are by ensuring your video shows details of your environment, such as windows, and that you discuss the context of the information. Provide lots of examples and stories and ask your students to share some, too. For example, if you’re talking about a finance, operations, or marketing issue, spend a few moments discussing what else is going on around the situation.  

“Remember that it’s not as likely to happen virtually as it is face-to-face,” she said. “You may feel like this is a waste of time, but, if you want to convey meaning and not just information – to develop shared understanding and not just transfer technical data – it’s important to spend time on this.” 

David Wood’s tip – Revise your plan and objectives

David Wood, HBA ’97, MBA ’12, is a lecturer in Operations Management.

Moving online requires a new teaching plan and sometimes even new learning objectives. Wood advocates case teaching, discussion forums, and contributions be in both asynchronous and synchronous formats, and that you grade both asynchronous and synchronous contribution. Asynchronous formats involve coursework delivered online through readings, videos, activities, and discussion forums so students can be self-paced. On the other hand, synchronous formats involve bringing everyone together for real-time sessions with instant feedback. Wood said you’ll have to adjust your content accordingly.

“Questions need to be more specific and directive for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Consider replacing a broad question with three to four questions that progressively direct the learning,” he said. “Use a discussion board to assign questions that help students prepare for class. This is even more effective in small groups.”

Variety is also key. Break up your synchronous class with breakout rooms and polls, and ask a student to summarize each topic before moving on to the next item for discussion.

Some other handy tips from Wood include:

  • Take the time to get the camera angle and lighting correct;
  • Have one clipboard to the left of your monitor for your teaching plan and another clipboard to the right of your monitor for making notes (or the opposite if you are left-handed);
  • Ask students to use the Raise Hand feature and to mute their microphones when they are not speaking; 
  • Have a co-host if you are using chat or to help with any technical issues;
  • Be sure that you are commenting on students’ comments in the asynchronous discussion board;
  • Shorten the time on each topic by half and even consider using asynchronous discussion boards to shorten the total amount of synchronous class time; and,
  • If you have a large class, consider teaching the same class multiple times in groups of 30-35 students.

Dominic Lim’s tip – Do a test run

Dominic Lim, PhD ’09, is an assistant professor of Entrepreneurship.

When learning any new activity, practise makes perfect. Lim advises you familiarize yourself with the technology and its features, such as screen share, sound/without sound, and breakout rooms. Also make sure you understand what the students’ screens will look like, and where they can find necessary functions. If possible, do dry runs without an audience or with your teacher’s assistant.

Remember that you will be standing or sitting for the entire class. To prevent strain on your back, make sure you have room to stretch. Use your webcam’s privacy shutter, and consider a virtual background. Lim said he often selects several photos related to the material for use as virtual backgrounds.

Before the class, have your slides, browsers, and anything else you plan to share ready and organized. Above all, have a back-up plan in case something goes wrong. For instance, have your phone ready so you can use the phone audio if the computer audio does not work well.

“Be prepared for the worst case as technology can fail at any time,” he said. 

Jana Seijts' tip – Talk to each other

Jana Seijts is a lecturer in Management Communications.

Lively discussions are a staple in the face-to-face classroom and are equally important online. Seijts suggests you create discussion boards and virtual open houses so students can ask questions. And don’t just limit your online conversations to the course content, it’s also important to ask people how they are feeling in these trying times.

“Above all, ask them how they are doing. Be human. Be enthusiastic. Be reassuring,” she said. “Many of us are new to teaching and learning in this medium. So be forgiving of yourself and students.”